Friday, December 12, 2014

To All the Boys I've Loved Before by Jenny Han

Lara Jean Song writes love letters. She addresses them to the boys that she loves, slips them into an envelope, and then hides them in a hat box. She never sends them. So when somebody does, five extremely private letters are hand delivered to five boys that Lara Jean never intended to know how she felt about them. 

Lara Jean's love life is further complicated by the fact that her oldest sister Margot is leaving for university in Scotland at the end of the summer. Margot has kept the Song family together - sisters Margot, Lara Jean, and Kitty, and their father - since the death of their mother several years before. She makes the meals, delegates chores and responsibilities, and keeps everything running smoothly. But before she leaves, Margot breaks up with her longtime boyfriend Josh. Josh, who has been a part of the Song family for as long as they can remember. Josh, who is the recent recipient of one of Lara Jean's love letters. 

And Josh isn't the only one who receives a love letter. There's also Peter Kavinsky, who Lara Jean kissed once in middle school and then never again. To save face with Josh, she convinces Peter to agree to being a part of a fake relationship (he's just broken up with his long term girlfriend Gen), one that becomes a lot more interesting (and a little less fake) as it goes on. 

I love teen romance books, and Jenny Han's was something special. I found To All the Boys I've Loved Before completely unpredictable. Even in the last quarter of the book, it was hard to guess who Lara Jean was going to end up with, or if she was even going to end up with anybody. Lara Jean's love life is complicated and messy, and it resists being tied up neatly with a bow. 

Overwhelmingly, To All the Boys I've Loved Before is a book about sisters, and the relationship between Margot, Lara Jean, and Kitty. Margot, away at university, is devastated when her family puts up the Christmas tree before she gets home for the holidays. Kitty and Lara Jean are shocked when Margot breaks up with Josh, because he's erased from their lives just as easily as he's erased from their sister's. Han's YA novel is fantastic (and so is the cover art!). 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta has been on my to-read list for years. Marchetta's Australian YA novel won the Printz Award in 2008, recognized for its excellence in writing for young adults. I purchased Jellicoe Road in a recent Amazon book order, and have started and stopped reading it about half a dozen times over the last three months. There are two intertwining story lines - one communicated through italics and one in real time - there are Cadets and Townies and a Hermit and a Brigadier and a boy in a dream. I found the first dozen pages or so disorienting, and put down the book several times instead of pushing through. Part of my reluctance to keep reading was the reality of a very busy semester where most of my reading was characterized as fast and easy. When the semester was over, I tried again, and I read all of Jellicoe Road in one sitting. The very aspects of the book that initially pushed me out were the same that ended up holding me captivated throughout. 

Taylor Markham is caught up in a war between the Townies, the Cadets, and the School students for territory around Jellicoe Road. She has just been elected the new leader of the School students, and it is up to her to negotiate with Griggs (a Cadet, the Cadet) and Santangelo (a Townie) for control over the Prayer Tree, the Club House, the trails, and the river. But Taylor has a history with Griggs, a Cadet she ran away with several years before on a search for her missing mother. 

When Hannah, the only real guardian Taylor has had in her life for the past few years, disappears suddenly, she finds her world slowly crumbling. The territory wars are the least of her worries, although they are the most pressing issue at hand. She must figure out to navigate her history with Griggs, and to understand the history between her best friend Raffaela and Santangelo. Meanwhile, there is the boy who keeps visiting her dreams, and Taylor knows he's trying to tell her something. Jellicoe Road is a giant question that Marchetta slowly answers, drawing out resolutions over the course of the book.

Marchetta's writing is fantastic, and I've already ordered another one of her books, Looking for Alibrandi, to read next. For example, she casts Taylor as a teenager without connections, who will do anything to understand how people make connections with one another and build a community of caring individuals. When Taylor's relationship with Griggs begins to evolve, she reflects, 
"I wanted to say that I didn't need to breathe on my own when Jonah Griggs was kissing me, but seeing he hasn't touched me since that night, I can't even bring myself to think of him. It's not like he's ignoring me, because that would be proactive. It's like I'm just anyone to him. Even when we were squashed in the back seat, our knees glued together and our shoulders touching and my insides full of butterflies, he was speaking over my head and the whole time with Santangelo about some ridiculous AFL/Rugby League thing. Somwhere along the way, Jonah Girggs has become a priority in my life and his attitude this week has been crushing" (245). 
Jellicoe Road is one of the most satisfying books I've read this year (and that includes Jandy Nelson's unforgettable I'll Give You the Sun), and the first time I've stayed up until two a.m. to finish a book in a long time. It presents a magical story that continues to surprise until the very end. Taylor's voice is strong and unwavering, even in the face of everything she has endured. There are more heartbreaking moments scattered throughout Jellicoe Road than I was expecting, as Marchetta constructs an emotional build that doesn't even really let go. I would have gladly continued to read Taylor's story well after it ended. Jellicoe Road became one of those books that made me understand why so many readers ask authors about sequels; there are some characters you want to hang onto, and never really let go.
"I watch them both and for the first time it occurs to me that I'm no longer flying solo and that I have no intention of pretending that I am. I have an aunt and I have a Griggs and this is what it's like to have connections with people. 'Do you know what?' I ask both of them. 'If you don't build a bridge and get over it, I'll never forgive either of you'" (400-401). 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty has been on my to-read list for several months. I love her books, including Three Wishes, What Alice Forgot, and The Hypnotist's Love Story. Liane Moriarty is sister of Australian YA writer Jaclyn Moriarty (who has the best author blog of any writer, even if years can go between updates), and both consistently write fantastic books. 

Big Little Lies begins with a murder during a parents' trivia night at Pirriwee Public School, although the victim is not identified. After a short prologue, the book rewinds to six months before and unravels the mystery. It focuses on three women living in the Pirriwee Peninsula, where their children attend kindergarten together: Madeline, who has just turned forty, rolls her ankle in her new stilettos while telling off a teen driver who texts and drives; Celeste, a beautiful woman who lives with her wealthy husband and her twins sons, and hides a devastating secret; and Jane, a twenty-four-year-old mother who is so young that she is mistaken as a nanny. The book revolves around kindergarten politics, especially as Jane's son Ziggy is ostracized on the first day of school for an act of bullying he claims he didn't commit. 

I loved when the book returned to Madeline's sections. She's described as "funny biting, and passionate; she remembers everything and forgives no one." She lives with her second husband Ed, and their two children Fred and Chloe. Her teenage daughter Abigail lives part-time with Madeline and Ed, and part-time with Madeline's ex-husband Nathan and his yogi wife Bonnie. Lately, Abigail is finding more to like at her father's house, and spends less and less time at home. Making matters worse for Madeline is the fact that Chloe is the same age as Skye, Nathan and Bonnie's daughter, meaning she not only has to live in the same suburb as her ex-husband, but that their children must attend the same school. When Abigail volunteers at a homeless shelter on Christmas Day with Bonnie and Nathan, Madeline can't quite believe it: "She's never peeled a freaking potato in her life," muttered Madeline as she texted back: "That's wonderful, darling. Merry XMAS to you too, see you soon, xxx!" She can't understand how Nathan's new wife is more appealing to Abigail than she is. 

Both Jane and Celeste have slow-to-reveal secrets and stories, and are more connected to both the murder and the mystery. 

I read Big Little Lies in almost one sitting. Moriarty elevates the ordinary, and makes the daily lives of Madeline, Jane, and Celeste must-read material. The screen rights have already been optioned by Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon. Moriarty continues to write outstanding stories, and luckily I haven't picked up The Husband's Secret yet, so I still have more of her writing to binge read over Christmas. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

I'm late to discovering British writer Jojo Moyes, and only recently learned about her 2012 novel Me Before You with this past week's casting announcements of the movie adaptation. I had a chance to pick up Me Before You on Friday and read it over the weekend.

Louisa Clarke is a twenty-six-year-old woman still living at home in the small British village where she was born. She has just lost her job at the Buttered Bun, the main cafe in town, as owner Frank heads back to Australia at the news that a new cafe is moving in to town. 

Louisa has to find a new job immediately as her family relies on what little income she can bring home: her parents, her ailing Grandad, and her sister Treena and her young son Thomas. After trying out a few jobs recommended by the Job Center (but not the opening for a pole dancer), Louisa is given an interview for a caregiver position. She ends up working for Will Traynor, a previously successful businessman who, after a accident in London, is bound to a wheelchair. Lou is meant to take care of him on a daily basis. He's young, depressed, and the job is not anything Lou expects.

Over time, Lou realizes that the reason for her presence in the Traynor home is not exactly just to keep Will company: she is there to try to prevent him from committing suicide, which he attempted before she started working for the Traynors. Will's quality of life is not anywhere near where he would like it to be. Previously, Will bought and sold big companies. He traveled, he skydived, he went on adventures. He lived big. He is not prepared to continue living the life he has been saddled with.

So begins Lou's great undertaking of changing Will Traynor's mind through a series of adventures designed to show Will that his life is still worth living. And Lou's life, too, begins changing along the way. I loved Me Before You and have added Moyes's books to my to-read list, especially The Girl You Left Behind, which I've been hearing so much about!

Friday, August 29, 2014

Broken Hearts, Fences, and Other Things to Mend by Katie Finn

This summer, I bought and read all of Morgan Matson's new contemporary YA novels. Amy and Roger's Epic Detour, Second Chance Summer, and Since You've Been Gone. Morgan's books blend aspects of Sarah Dessen's and Deb Caletti's. She writes strong YA romances that also have interesting, complex characters and situations. When I found out that Morgan Matson also writes under the pseudonym "Katie Finn," I bought Broken Hearts, Fences, and Other Things to Mend, the first book in a series about protagonist Gemma's summer in the Hamptons. I had actually received Broken Hearts as an ARC at a recent conference, but forgot about it completely. I ended up buying the hard cover copy of Broken Hearts, and now both copies are shelved together. Sometimes knowing just that extra bit of information about an author and their other publication history (which you don't always get with a new publication, especially one written under a pseudonym - knowing that Morgan Matson was also Katie Finn is what led me to this book!) is just enough to create interest in a book that is otherwise indistinguishable from a pile of other ARCs. Morgan Matson - and Katie Finn - are now on my permanent "to-read" list, and I'm so excited about the news that Matson is beginning work on a new novel.

Broken Hearts follows teenage Gemma after her break-up with long-term boyfriend Teddy right before summer vacation. Gemma has plans to travel with Teddy to Colombia for the summer where they will be participating in a HELPP program (Humanitarian Education Learning through Progressive Programming). Dating Teddy has changed Gemma's interests and activities. She takes on Teddy's causes (mostly environmental initiatives) and swaps out movie dates for documentary dates. But she doesn't mind. She's happy to be with Teddy, and when he suggests they go to Colombia, she thinks it's a good idea (even if her idea of the program is more movie than documentary):
When Teddy had first told me about this volunteering program, I had assumed it would mean doing things like planting gardens and maybe teaching children to sing, until my best friend, Sophie Curtis, pointed out that I was actually thinking of The Sound of Music. I hadn't realized until I got the application forms that this program involved things like building houses and digging latrines. (pp. 2-3)
So when Teddy breaks up at her while they're shopping for travel supplies at Target, Gemma watches her summer plans vanish. Her mom and stepfather - expecting Gemma to be in Colombia - already have plans for the summer and insist that she can't stay home alone. Cue Gemma's invitation to stay in the Hamptons for the summer with her father, who is living with his writing partner so they can complete a new screenplay. The Hamptons should sound like a better option than building houses in Colombia to Gemma, if not for the fact that the last time she stayed there with her father, things went horribly wrong. She's not sure if she can face up to the damage that she left behind five years ago. 

But the Hamptons is Gemma's only choice, and armed with a brand new break-up haircut, she decides to go. En route, Gemma is mistaken for someone else, and this case of mistaken identity causes her to go by her best friend's name - Sophie Curtis - the entire time she is in the Hamptons. Her hair cut helps to conceal the fact that she's Gemma, the girl who ruined lives and left a lot of damage behind her. As Sophie, can she make amends with her ex-best friend Hallie and Hallie's brother Josh, who Gemma might be falling for? Or is it all going to go wrong?

The sequel, Revenge, Ice Cream, and Other Things Best Served Cold, comes out next year, and hopefully there will be another Morgan Matson book again soon! And I love all of the coffee references in Finn's novel, where the iced soy vanilla latte - extra vanilla - takes center stage as Gemma's beverage of choice.